Most people cover their eyes during horror movies, which is why The Innkeepers may be one of the scariest movies you've seen in a while. In this flick, the terror creeps in through sound. It's the story of two slackers who work at The Yankee Pedlar, an old Connecticut hotel that's about to close, and their quest to record sounds from the ghosts who supposedly haunt the place.
The Innkeepers starts unevenly, but ratchets up the tension until the explosively weird finale. And it will teach you to cover your freakin ears.
Like director Ti West's previous movie, cult horror stunner The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers has a slow-burn retro horror feel. It's set ambiguously in an era I want to call "five minutes into the past." Nobody seems to have a cell phone, and protagonists Claire (the delightfully tomboyish Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are shown creating a website that looks very Geocities circa 2000. In fact, they spend most of the movie lazing over the hotel's front desk, browsing crappy internet porn and watching online videos of ghostly events from the hotel's history. There is something quite disturbing about seeing Claire watch a video of the hotel's doors closing by themselves - just down the hall from the actual door in question. Moments like these, which combine modern tech with ye olde ghosties, are what make this movie a lot more than a B-grade jump scare joint.
The Yankee Pedlar Inn, like the famous Overlook Hotel in The Shining, is an absolutely perfect setting for a ghost story. It's got that cheesy Americana look, complete with flowery wallpaper, but the long halls and ancient basement look like gateways into a darker world.
You may find yourself rolling your eyes during early scenes where Claire and Luke trade bored barbs, and Luke moons over the weirdly clueless Claire. All she seems to care about is making contact with the ghost of a woman who supposedly killed herself in the hotel after being stood up by her fiancé. She's also semi-stalking Lee (Kelly McGillis), a washed-up TV actress staying in the hotel for a local "healer's convention." After confessing to Lee that she's a "big fan," Claire blurts out that she's trying to record the hotel's ghost. And that's right around the time when the movie starts to send uncontrollable shivers up your spine - if you're susceptible to horror at all.
There's a truly terrifying sequence when Luke goes to sleep and Claire wanders alone through the hotel, directional microphone thrust out in front of her, puffy headphones framing her small face. As increasingly bizarre sounds worm their way into her ears, you'll be amazed at how much tension can be wrung from such subtle cues. You don't need gore or even spooky women in black veils to feel her terror. After Lee finds out about Claire's recordings, the actress tries to contact the spirits in the hotel using a crystal. She manages to "sense" them, and tells Claire that she'd better stay away from the basement.
I'm sure you've guessed exactly where Claire will go.
Making things even more disturbing are all the real-life difficulties and uncomfortable moments in the hotel. A sad old man checks in, insisting that he be allowed to sleep in the honeymoon suite he shared with his now-dead wife long ago. Luke's crush on Claire begins to feel pathetic, and his interest in her gradually grows claustrophobic. Claire has asthma that acts up when she's scared, so there are many scenes of her huffing and panting as she gets closer to discovering the secrets of the hotel's ghosts.
Ultimately we never know whether Claire is chasing actual spirits, or just figments of her imagination. But that doesn't drain away any of the tension - in fact, it adds to the film's awkward realism, making it a kind of Brian De Palma version of 1990s hipster-loser epic Slacker. There are definitely scenes in this film that go on far too long, and a lot of the comedy in the first half falls flat. But overall, it's a seriously hair-raising, artfully realized update on a very old ghost story.
You can watch The Innkeepers on demand now, or see it in select theaters starting Friday.